Jazz Now: Comment Ombudsman

Jazz Now image 2. i i
Jazz Now image 2.

We've been elated to see such a wide response to our Jazz Now series, where we and our guest contributors recommend starter albums for getting into today's jazz. We've also seen a whole lot of alternate lists and insightful comments too. So I thought I'd play "comment ombudsman" and highlight some of the interesting opinions proffered.

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on "a golden age of jazz"

A tempting thesis from commenter Dan Alford, who writes:

I think the idea of "making the case for jazz in the last decade" is hysterical, because the last ten years have produced the best jazz since the 1960s. Not just the younger greats ... but also the last ten years from the masters: Charles Lloyd (esp. Sangam), McCoy Tyner, and is there a more daring band than the Wayne Shorter Quartet is any genre?

In thinking up my own list, and listening to all the great picks from others, I'm almost in agreement. I have been hipped to some phenomenal music in the last two weeks, which makes me think the well runs deep. But then again, the 1970-1989 focus of the Ear of the Behearer project, and the Destination: OUT Best Albums of the 1990s thread implicitly argue that the greatness of this music never went anywhere. (The audiences and industry capital, on the other hand ...)

The case could be made, I think, that we are at least transitioning to a different age for jazz. At this stage in pop music, online global communication, artist self-determination, industry woes, jazz education, academic jazz studies and institutional memory, something has changed. Whether or not it's a golden age? Shoot: the quality of the music may never have changed. But the way it's produced and consumed certainly has.

Alford does bring up another interesting point about older artists. We didn't see many of those artists on Jazz Now, which is understandable. If you want to convince people that jazz is alive and more-than-well, you want some fresh faces to represent that. But artists' careers are lasting longer than ever now, and some of those older artists have been making wonderfully inventive music of late. A more complete portrait of the jazz scene now probably ought to include recent offerings from Charles Lloyd, or Ornette Coleman, or Billy Hart, or Abbey Lincoln, or Wayne Shorter, or Sam Rivers ... you get the picture.

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on Brad Mehldau's Largo

I had forgotten that there was a debate about the merits of this record — I was only dimly aware of it the first-go-round. (I liked it then, I remember, though I haven't fully revisited it since.) Commenter Henry Powderly reminded me, though, when he wrote in:

Mehldau is indeed one of the most influential modern artists but Largo is a stain on his discography, a watered-down record that clearly put "accessibility" in front of artistry. I own every record he ever made, and deleted that one.

I can see how Largo might rub some people the wrong way: there were lots of atmospheric electronics and studio musicians on the date, and the end product comes off very ... produced. But knowing Mehldau's penchant for rock, and his intense viewpoints on music, I can't see him being anything less than true to his art.

In this age of poptimism, I also have trouble seeing a project like Mehldau's in terms of commercialism vs. art. (Didn't we already have this debate 50+ years ago about Charlie Parker with Strings?) Rather, I just ask: is it good or not? There's a telling comment from George Grella on Andrew Durkin's Jazz Now response:

"I think "Largo" is completely honest, it's just not very good. It's a shallow, trite rock instrumental record that not only is not good Mehldau, but is not good compared to other music that fits the idiom better, like Tortoise. Some things just explain themselves!"

Then again, Largo did make Brad Mehldau fans out of Lucas Gillan's non-jazz friends too. And commenter Bart Miltenberger loves this disc too: "Also very un-jazz production. Wish he would revisit this kind of approach." To each, his or her own, I say.

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on the progressive/avant/free vs. accessibility

We got a fair amount of experimental and/or avant-garde jazz on our lists and responses. The generally progressive bent is surely a result of all us deciding to highlight original music, to be sure. Still, this inclination did not go unnoticed. Here's part of a Twitter exchange I had:

@garrettshelton: @blogsupreme it's very interesting that the timbre of jazz being selected for these lists are more on the avant/free side of things.

@blogsupreme: @garrettshelton Makes sense that those uncomfortable with the status quo in music media have a general interest in progressive musics ...

From there the conversation evolved somewhere else. But several other commenters noted the same thing. In response to Mike Katzif's list, Joe Wenger pondered the inclusion of Marc Ribot's Prosthetic Cubans and John Zorn's Masada Quintet as "particularly curious." Mike's list also inspired a commenter who went by the nom de Internet "jomammy":

For me, the issue in making lists like this is always whether to focus on what most people see as more approachable jazz (Diana Krall, Herbie Hancock) in the hope of sucking people in and leading them to other things, or to just cut to the chase and recommend the music that inspires me, even if it may be a bit more 'difficult' for newcomers.

For my part, I do think there's plenty of "approachable" jazz that tends toward the innovative, progressive and further-out. Mike's picks include some of them. The idea of groove is a pretty universal one — it gives an anchor to any listener trying to decipher what's going on atop it. (Plus, the crowd that likes noisy, loud rock might dig free-blowing styles too.)

Commenter Dave Rohner noted via e-mail that he thought "the key to attracting a young audience is intensity." To flesh out what I think he's saying, if you present any sort of passionately-felt music — in the correct environment — the young audience will follow. I like this; I think people are drawn toward any sort of strong musical conviction, whether uptempo, languid, or somewhere in between.

There's always some form of organization in all jazz/creative improvised music. It strikes me that if you show someone the stuff that really moves you, in a low-pressure way, new listeners will at least be inspired to think about what that organization is. And that's more than half the battle right there.

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